The bubble has officially closed, and the Columbus Blue Jackets are inside.
Less than a week now remains before they take on the Toronto Maple Leafs in a five-game Stanley Cup Qualifier series with a playoff spot on the line. The team traveled to its hub city of Toronto on Sunday and went through its first practice on Monday. Afterward, coach John Tortorella and a few of his players spoke to the media, offering their first thoughts.
And they’re off.
On Monday afternoon, Columbus went through its first practice since flying into Toronto the day before. It got underway at 2:30 p.m. at the Ford Performance Centre, which is the Maple Leafs’ practice facility, and lasted for about an hour, per Seth Jones.
“They were full of energy,” Tortorella said. “We're in a bubble. This morning, I felt that a little bit. You can't go out for a walk. You have to mind yourself as far as staying in the hotel. I think they were glad to get on the bus and skate. They were full of energy. We had a really good practice. As it gets closer to a game, even the exhibition game, you're getting excited to play. So I thought we practiced really well today.”
As Tortorella put it, the Blue Jackets “went through our routine.” They worked on the neutral zone and spent some time on special teams. He said they also did “a number of different things with Xs and Os.
Jones said it wasn’t all that dissimilar to what they had gotten used to during the two-week training camp in Columbus. It offered an opportunity for all of them to get back onto the ice after being off of it for two straight days for the first time in a couple of weeks.
“I don't want you guys to overthink it,” Tortorella said. “There's nothing special going on. We're going to play as a team. We're going to play the game that we think we need to play and just go play, so there's nothing tricky going on here at all.”
Torts vs. a Former Player
Tortorella doesn’t want to talk about it.
No, he really doesn’t want to talk about it.
When someone asked Tortorella about what it’ll be like facing Sheldon Keefe, the Maple Leafs’ coach whom he once coached with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he had a quick response: “Listen, I'm not sure what writers are out there, I'm not going to talk about this a long time. I'm sure Keefe doesn't want to talk about me a long time.”
In Columbus, he had been asked a similar question, declined to answer. At the time, he said he was waiting to give one – only one! – answer when he arrived in Toronto. Monday was that day.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for that guy, as far as how he played,” Tortorella said about Keefe. “He's one of the most competitive players I've coached. I didn't coach him a lot of games, but when he played, he knew one way and that was to play hard. Did I think (he would be) a coach? I don't know. That's years ago. So I know you want this sexy story about this here, but there's nothing there. Only reason why I'm talking about him now, talking about the other coach who we're going to be playing in another few days, is because he's an ex-player of mine. I will not disrespect him by not saying a couple of words about him. But I'm done with it now.”
Or, at least almost done.
“I wish nothing for the best for that guy,” Tortorella said. “Other than this series here, I wish nothing but the best. We've had a couple of conversations when we took the job and a few texts here and there, but I'm sure he feels the same way. It's time to play against one another, and all that stuff gets thrown out the window.”
Nearing Decision Day
Since training camp opened two weeks ago, Tortorella has done his best to obfuscate the Blue Jackets’ goaltender situation.
He’s said he doesn’t watch the goalies in practice since he can’t properly evaluate them, noting assistant coach Manny Legace has that responsibility. Early on, he said he had “no clue” whether it would be Joonas Korpisalo or Elvis Merzlikins in front of the net in the postseason. A week and a half later, he said the team has “two really good goalies” that the coaches are “still evaluating.” Korpisalo struggled in a couple of scrimmages, but Tortorella said they’re not necessarily the deciding factors.
So, did anyone expect him to arrive in Toronto and suddenly name the start? Of course not.
Instead, though, we received the answer of when Tortorella will reveal the starting goalie. It came in the form of two words: “August 1”
On Saturday, one day before the series opener, Tortorella will name the starter. Until then, don’t bother asking him. He hasn’t even offered any remote hints.